RockTenn CEO Steve Voorhees shares his views on the importance of sustainability and how the company is using its sustainability goals to enhance the connections between RockTenn and its customers, co-workers, the environment and communities.
Why is sustainability important to RockTenn?
RockTenn operates manufacturing facilities throughout the United States and in Canada, Mexico and South America, and our operations impact the people, communities and environments around us. We need to run our business responsibly and ethically so that we can remain relevant, productive and profitable far into the future. Sustainability is important to our co-workers, our customers, our investors and the community, and sustainability has been and will remain an important part of our continued success.
How would you respond to those who say that the sustainability movement in corporate America is a fad?
We’ve been making products from recycled and renewable materials for more than 100 years, and paper is the original sustainable packaging material. Although we haven’t always used the word “sustainability,” the longevity we’ve had in many of the communities where we operate reflects the fact that our facilities have been focused on the fundamentals of sustainability – people, financial performance and the environment – for a very long time.
Recently, Dick Steed, a close colleague and friend of mine, retired after 39 years with RockTenn. He has a great history with the company, and he not long ago handed me a RockTenn pamphlet from the early 1990s that set forth 12 objectives for the company. These objectives were focused on customers, people, safety, quality, environment, creativity, productivity, profit, growth, financial, ethics and free enterprise. While this pamphlet was written over 20 years ago, these objectives – which I describe as sustainability objectives in today’s terms – remain the foundation of our operating philosophy at RockTenn.
Which sustainability issues are of greatest importance to RockTenn?
We are a fiber-based packaging company, and the continued long-term health of the forests is one of our most compelling issues. RockTenn’s team of wood procurement professionals works closely with forest landowners to ensure the fiber we use is harvested from responsibly managed lands. We are members of the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement and are partnering with other organizations doing the research necessary to understand and protect our forest resources and habitats.
Water also is a significant issue for us. Paper mills are water-intensive operations, and development occurring around these facilities is placing increasing demands on available water resources. We’ve made great progress toward our 2020 water goal and have already reduced the amount of water that we use per ton of production by 9 percent since 2009. Several of our facilities have made very substantial water reductions over the years, but we have more to do in this area, including exploring alternative water sources as well as new withdrawal and treatment technologies, in an effort to ensure our water use remains sustainable.
While fiber and water are top priorities on our agenda, our sustainability goals reflect the importance we place on a variety of issues that we face as a company. Our challenge is to manage the social, environmental and financial trade-offs that inevitably arise in our business in the most responsible manner possible.
What other sustainability issues are focuses for RockTenn?
The changing dynamics of the pulp and paper industry’s workforce are an extremely important issue. RockTenn and our industry have to compete harder than ever for the best engineering and technical talent. RockTenn needs to attract the highly skilled people needed to operate and lead a paper-based packaging company, including engineers, electricians, welders, designers and a host of other highly motivated and talented people. We’re transforming the way we approach talent across the board to ensure that we’re able to retain and develop the great people we already have while attracting new diverse talent that will help us become a better business in the future.
What do you consider to be RockTenn’s most significant sustainability accomplishments since its first sustainability report was published in 2012?
In 2011, we established a goal to obtain triple chain-of-custody certification for all of our manufacturing operations, and we have achieved that goal. RockTenn now has one of the largest forestry certification programs in North America, and our innovative program design won us the American Forest & Paper Association’s 2014 Leadership in Sustainability Award.
Our investments in energy efficiency projects and clean energy infrastructure are paying off too. Natural gas conversion projects have helped us reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases and improve our operating cost structure in a number of places. Our new, state-of-the-art biomass boiler at the Demopolis, Ala., paper mill will come online next year. That project will reduce our use of coal, increase our ability to use renewable, internally generated biomass, and further reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
I also take pride in the continued strength of our financial performance, which is reflected in the investment grade rating we maintain from both of the major ratings agencies. Our financial success is the direct result of the focus that our 27,000 co-workers place on improving our assets, our culture and our relationships with customers.
Overall, we’ve made good progress toward achieving the goals we laid out in 2011. We’ve had to go back to the drawing board on some and face certain headwinds with others, but our focus is always on the future. With the support of great leaders who believe in sustainability and are dedicated to continually improving RockTenn’s performance, I’m confident that we will continue on a steady path to success.
How is RockTenn building a more sustainable business for the future?
We’ll remain sustainable in our business by creating innovative solutions for our customers and ourselves, making investments in our people and our facilities, and running our business in an ethical and environmentally responsible manner. We’re looking ahead and moving forward, and we are guided by those same objectives that have shaped our business for many years.